There is a quote by Whoopi Goldberg underlying the importance of representation. After seeing Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, Goldberg said, “When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” That day stirred powerful emotions in her, inspiration that gave her a sense of hope to become whatever she wanted, and now Goldberg is a household name. This is the importance of having representation in the media.
Growing up as a Pakistani female in the early 2000s in Britain, I am almost positive my only sense of representation was Princess Jasmine. It’s almost laughable and strange to think that out of everyone I have seen passing my screens, the only character I could vaguely relate to was animated. Even so, she lived in Agrabah, and I did not. Not seeing a reflection of myself became normal; I didn’t even think to question it anymore. Not until I came across posts that discussed the importance of Black Panther on the big screen.
It was like a light bulb went off in my head, and “who am I represented by?” became the only question running through my mind. All my thoughts were consumed by this question, analyzing every character that I thought resonated with me until I was left with the much-loved Princess Jasmine. And once again, she wasn’t Pakistani.
It was a sobering moment when I realized I had never seen a true reflection of myself in the films I loved or the books I read. But out on the streets, I saw so many people who looked like me, who spoke like me. I became angry knowing I didn’t grow up with a character in mainstream TV that spoke Urdu, wore a headscarf, only ate halal food, and didn’t drink alcohol. Surely, if there are so many people like me in this world, wouldn’t it just make sense to show us in the media?
But as I reached my 20s, I started to take more interest in my culture. I started to watch Bollywood films and read books that discussed the troubles of growing up as a British Pakistani. It became important to me to find representation, someone external I could relate to and help me figure out what I can do in the world. This was more than a sit-down talk with my parents. I wanted to see what others had done, how they navigated the world around us. I needed to know how I could keep in touch with my culture and flourish in a British society. I was adamant to find something at first, frustrated I had to go out of my way to find it, but the longer I looked, the more I saw it come to me. Now I see representation everywhere.
Actors that play the role of South Asians are growing and moving into mainstream TV, filling me with so much joy. Jameela Jamil playing the wonderful Tahani in The Good Place, stating she is Pakistani. Dev Patel is on the big screen in so many great films, like Life of Pi, in which Irrfan Khan, a Bollywood actor, stars. Patel even took a role in Lion, a film that is based off a true story in India. Hindi is spoken in the film! We even have a live action Princess Jasmine. Bollywood films are easier to find on Netflix, with actors that you could verbalize in a pub quiz. Seeing these actors take on huge roles shows that someone out there also thought casts should be more diverse. That the world should be reflected on our screens.
This slight addition has changed the way I view what I watch and who I relate to. It makes me more aware and comfortable to discuss the importance of representation so that one day, someone can see a South Asian actor on their TV screens and say, “I can be anything I want to be.”